Buck Rogers Week 2017: "The Guardians" (January 22, 1981)
These format changes cast the new Buck Rogers rather firmly in the mold of Star Trek or Space: 1999 with the new series acting as a vehicle for “civilization of the week” stories.
In broad terms, this was the very problem with the second season of Buck Rogers. Episodes that involved mischievous dwarfs, (“Shgoratchx!), or backwards-aging men spray-painted gold (“The Golden Man”) failed to impress or persuade either mainstream audiences or die-hard sci-fi fans.
Some second season episodes were better, including the dynamic “The Satyr," a show that pinpointed a great “alien” metaphor for alcoholism and its impact on families (and which I'll review later today).
On Star Trek, an alien disease or weapon was often utilized to examine emotional aspects of the characters that they normally keep hidden. “The Naked Time” or “The Naked Now” are two such notable examples.
In those episodes, a disease that mimicked alcohol intoxication “exposed” the underneath characteristics of our favorite Starfleet officers. The character revelations were sometimes funny, sometimes extremely moving.
This ancient “Guardian” informs Buck that he has been waiting for Captain Rogers for over five hundred years. Now, he must pass on to Buck – “The Chosen One,” an ancient green Pandora’s Box. This jade artifact must be transported to the old man’s unnamed successor and only a person of both “the past and the present” (like Buck) can get it to its destination successfully.
This trajectory especially concerns Lt. Devlin (Paul Carr), since he is due to be married on Lambda Colony in only a few days.
When Wilma (Erin Gray) is affected by the box, she sees herself as a hopeless blind woman wandering the corridors of Searcher alone.
Then, in a matter of an hour, Wilma is blinded in real life, and realizes her vision was prophetic. Even Hawk is affected, and he experiences an emotional moment with his dead mate, Koori (Barbara Luna).
In some sense, “The Guardian” showcases how the series could have approached more serious sci-fi storytelling.
This episode is not without flaws (and the ending looks cheap...), but the crew member visions of people starving to death and going blind are authentically disturbing. I remember watching the program for the first time in 1981 and feeling pretty jolted by Asimov’s vision of a crew dying from hunger…and looking like zombies. This moment resonates, and is probably the strongest in the show, despite the fact that Gil Gerard, in the vision, hardly looks emaciated...
In toto, I would have preferred to see a dream in which Buck revealed some personal flaw, foible or fear. Like the fact that he was afraid of never again making a meaningful connection with the world around him. I don't know. But something other than an idyllic dream of lemonade and small-town Americana. This dream tells us where he came from, but in a sense, we already know that. Better to explore how he feels about where he was, or where he is, or where he might be headed.
On the original Twilight Zone, the great (and incredibly atmospheric) episode “The Howling Man” postulated that man would experience peace only during those intervals during which he held the Devil captive. Whenever the Devil escaped captivity, world war would occur.
It’s nice to see Buck Rogers operate on that more intellectual, spine-tingling level, at least for a short duration. Had later episodes followed this relatively intelligent formula, the second season might today be much better perceived.
I don't know if the second series was too rushed, it was difficult to find good writers, or there were problems elsewhere that needed to be addressed first, but at least for "The Guardians" everything seems to come together for Buck.
In this case "opening up Pandora's Box" gave the sci-fi series a pretty visceral and intriguing hour.